(A short story from my first book, LIGHT ONE ON AND POP ONE OPEN)
My neighbor from across the street came out of his house with a gas can in his hand. He closed the front door, set the gas can down and stood on the sidewalk, looking at his house. He lit a cigarette with a match, smoked it and looked at his house. He was middle-aged; never married, fell in love plenty, but never married. He’d worked all his life for a house—that house—to fill it with children and the laughter of a woman in love with him, but he never married, never had children; and now stood outside of that house, his house, with a gas can, smoking a cigarette.
I walked outside and stood beside him, the gas can between us.
“Hey, neighbor, what’s the gas can for?”
“I’m gonna burn my house down, that’s what it’s for,” he told me.
“Well, why are you going to do that? Don’t you like your house?”
“Oh, I love my house,” he told me “I just can’t take all the space anymore. It’s too big for me. I get lonely in there.”
“How about a cat?” I told him “Or a dog. What about a dog?”
“Cat’s always leave me or they don’t pay me any attention. I’ve gone through half a dozen cats. Buried three of them in the backyard under my orange tree. The others, they left me only after a few weeks—haven’t seen’em since. And dogs? Well, dogs need me too much.” He took a hit of smoke and exhaled. “Call me fickle, I guess.”
“What about a plant?”
“You can’t talk to a plant. Plus, they were never able to say when I was overwatering them.”
“You can’t talk to a cat or a dog either, but you had those?”
Both he and I marveled at the size of his house and how staggering the flames would soon be.
“They can talk. Believe you me, they can certainly talk. Besides, it’s a nice day for a fire. The sky is blue—”
“When isn’t it?”
He ignored my crappy joke and went on.
“The air is dry.” He lifted a finger and put it beside his ear. “And listen.” We listened. “Not a sound at the moment. But this…this will be loud and will be the only thing happening on a grand scale to everyone for miles and miles all around us. They will know! They will know! This moment will stay in the minds of those that witness it and they will speak of it to friends and family…” He held his hand open to the sky and moved it as he said, “THE HOUSE THAT WENT UP IN FLAMES…I’ll be talked about for generations!” His hand stayed in the air for effect, then he put it down.
“It’s just a fire,” I said. “It’ll just be a fire.”
“It will be more than just a fire! It will resemble a man’s limit being pissed on. Understand? It symbolizes the ripple effect of God’s blind eye being turned on me; the scorn of a life without love; the screams of my loins that bore no children, no fresh souls. People will know that my heart was broken by life and by God and by the paths that I was asked by him to entrust upon, and were lain down so easily for me, making it practically impossible to deny them. For miles people will see the plumes of dark smoke rise and know that someone was wronged, that the universe must have made a mistake somewhere—right here. That a correction had to be made!”
He looked down at the gas can.
“So that’s it, huh? Gonna burn her down, just like that?”
“You’re more than welcome to anything that I have in there,” he said, picking up the gas can.
I looked at the house and wondered how long it would take to burn.
“Can I have your magazines?”
“Sure,” he said, unscrewing the cap off the gas tank. “Anything else?”
“What about your toilet paper?”
He walked up to his house and started splashing the front door with gasoline. He splashed the windows, the bushes, the entire porch, then bent down and trickled a little trail back to where he once stood and I was still standing. He chucked the gas tank on the grass, reached into his pocket and pulled out a book of matches.
“What kind of food do you have in the fridge?” I asked.
“Not much. Some eggs and bacon.”
“No. I think I’m good.”
“Then go ahead. Go on in. I’ll wait out here for you.”
I went inside and grabbed the toilet paper rolls, the magazines off his coffee table and came back outside with all of it in my arms.
“You got everything?”
“Yeah,” I told him.
“Alright,” he said. He opened the book of matches and tore out a match.
“Wait,” I said. “Let me take another look inside.”
“Believe me, you got everything,” he said, striking the match and letting it fall on the end of the gas trail. The trail instantly became a stream of fire that rose and woofed to the front door and spread like a yellow-red web over the entire porch. The flames were bright and blew hot air at our faces as it swelled and roared. The front door began to crackle. Before long, the entire house was engulfed in thin, yellow-orange flames that rose and pulsated and whipped the sky.
I turned and started to walk back to my house across the street. When I reached my front door I turned around and saw my neighbor still staring at his house, stretching out his hands straight above his head and looking up at the sky, watching the smoke rise into the air. He stood that way for what seemed like a good minute; then put his arms down slowly and began to walk down the sidewalk, down toward the end of the street and stood at the end of the sidewalk. It was a busy intersection. He looked both ways then leaped in front of a red semi-truck that sped right on through him, instantly turning him into a rag-of-a corpse that tumbled like hunks of meat between its massive tires. For some reason, I watched his twisted body lie there and waited to see if he was going to get up. Then I went inside to put the toilet paper and magazines away.
I spent the rest of the day at home reading the magazines while watching, from time to time, my neighbor’s house burn down through my windows. The firemen never came. The police never came. Our neighbor’s never came out. The next day it wasn’t on the news or in any of the papers.
It was ten days before the smell of my dead neighbor’s carcass became too unbearable, and the crows that picked his bones, a nuisance. On a Tuesday, two garbage men scraped him off the street and threw him in the back of their truck, all the while telling each other dirty jokes that really made them laugh.